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Extract from 'Letters of Sir Roger Hamley' (Vol. 1)

Chapter Text

Sept. 12th. 1833.

My dearest Molly

I am safely arrived in the port of Massowah, or Bāse as it is named in the Tigré language. The island on which the port stands, though ¾ mile long & ½ mile broad, scarcely rises 5’ above the sea, being formed entirely of coral. It is amazing to consider that the land is created by the actions of numberless tiny polypifers, as industrious as marine honey bees. Their ceaseless blind striving puts to shame all our architects. But you will want some idea of the place, Molly. I have assayed a sketch of the town from the harbour—you will be charitable enough to put all its infelicities down to the rocking of the boat, but in truth my ability to draw landscapes—indeed, anything much bigger than a beetle—is sadly lacking.

Abyssinian port of Massowah in the early 19th century

The town presents a most long & low picture—even the domes & minarets of the grand old mosques struggle to lift their venerable heads above the mean thatched huts that straggle over half the coast and in places even stretch into the sea upon stilts. The rough timber is mercifully draughty, for the combination of heat & humidity makes a man feel like a plum pudding a’steaming! Despite the superabundance of water, the inhabitants go thirsty, for there is no spring on the island. The islanders, who number some 2,000, trap what little rain falls most ingeniously in huge cisterns which extend over a substantial area of the island, the majority of the need, however, being supplied by water traders from the mainland a ½ mile distant, & at great cost—a skin holding some 7 gallons is said to sell for as much as a grain of gold when the cisterns run dry—no uncommon occurrence in these most arid parts.

Navigation of the Red Sea requires a knowledgeable guide, as uncharted submerged reefs have claimed many ships in these waters, but the harbour once gained is deep & safe, benefiting from a wide bay whose entrance is sheltered by the Dahlak Islands. The 200 islands, or more properly islets—for few of the number are more than a mile across—spill across the sea like raindrops on a greasy pane. I wish that you could see them, Molly—the water is the colour of lapis lazuli & the sand sparkles like snow. You would miss yr. dawn chorus—terrestrial birds & animals are scarce, owing no doubt to the scant vegetation—there is hardly a tree to be seen—but the warm waters hereabouts teem with all manner of life. I hired a dhow yesterday & took 25 different species in just a few hours—including, if my eyes do not deceive me, some 3 or 4 unknown to M. Cuvier. Most would only be of interest to a specialist, but you would be fascinated, I am sure, by a filamentous organism of an intense red hue, each filament of which is visible only beneath the lens, but which floats on the surface in great mats so as to stain the sea as red as blood over an area of many square miles—indeed the sailors aboard the Penelope would have it that the Red Sea is named for the phenomenon. I believe it might be the ‘sea sawdust’ that Capt. Cook described in his voyages in the southern seas—but if so then God must surely be planing the floors in Heaven! But you must not think that there are no larger creatures to be seen. I spotted a Sea Cow, that gentle herbivorous giant of the waters, but sadly was unable to approach sufficiently closely to make detailed observations. I plan to use my stay here profitably by making a more extensive survey over the coming days.

18th.—Massowah is but the veil to Abyssinia, & the longer I remain here the more I long to lift the veil & see the face. The natives here are of a mongrel sort, more Arab & Turk than Abyssinian, as is only to be expected after 3 centuries of Ottoman rule. Many of the merchants speak a debased form of Arabic, & all are as greedy for gold & given to overcharging men with white skin as anywhere on the Continent—my youthful training in haggling from my father at the Canonbury cattle market has stood me in good stead in provisioning my expedition without emptying my pockets. All claim the port as the ancient gateway to the civilisation of the Axumites—my studies of the Geo. Soc. maps before I set out, however, reveal this to be mere superstition, & characteristic of the exaggerations—& sheer invention—to be found everywhere in these parts.

20th.—My departure is set for tomorrow. You will want to trace my footsteps on the map, no doubt, so I will conclude by writing that I plan to head into Tigré towards Dixan, some 60 miles hence, & then on to Adowa, following Mr. Bruce’s route. You need have no fears for my safety, Molly, for my Abyssinian guide—hired for 5 strips of blue cotton cloth & a handful of glass beads, which serve as currency here—assures me that the wells are safe & the route is free from those warlike tribes that plague the coast further south. The fellow’s honest coal-black countenance is a relief from all the Arabs & half-castes that populate the market here. Letters addressed to Capt. Armstrong at Aden should continue to reach me, God willing.

Yr. affectionate Husband

R. H.

P. S.—Tell yr. Father that his prescription of Quinine admixed with Calomel is both palatable & effective: I have experienced only the slightest touch of fever, despite the most unhealthy atmosphere.